Living in Pismo Beach – Cornel Morton

Living in Pismo Beach, where we connect you with some of our favorite people who live and work on the Central Coast. Those community and business leaders who make living on the Coast such a unique and diverse experience.

Episode #12

Cornel Morton, the President of Diversity Coalition SLO County

Cornel Morton, the President of Diversity Coalition SLO County, joins Ashlea Foster Boyer, Shannon Bowdey & Jordan Hamm on Living In Pismo Beach.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, I am super excited to be here with you all today, and you all look beautiful as usual, and have another great guest speaker coming up. But I’m also super excited that tomorrow is Fri-yay, and we’re going to celebrate Michael’s birthday with a trip up to Paso and check out Norine Martin’s newest resort, the Piccolo. And it’s a small format hotel, so hopefully it won’t be too crowded. And just get outside of our four walls of this house.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah. I can’t wait to hear how it is.

Shannon Bowdey:

Celebrate the big 5-0. Whoo.

Ashlea Boyer:

I know. Nifty 50.

Shannon Bowdey:

Nifty 50.

Ashlea Boyer:

So, and there’s a vending machine in the hotel that serves Moet & Chandon. So, if nothing else you’ll find me in the lobby.

Jordan Hamm:

You’re set.

Shannon Bowdey:

Oh, my gosh. Funny.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay, well, Shannon, why don’t you kick us off?

Shannon Bowdey:

Cornell Morton is a Cal Poly professor emeritus who recently served as vice president for student affairs. He is the current president for the diversity coalition of San Luis, Obispo.

Ashlea Boyer:

throughout his career, he served as a consultant to public and private organizations in areas including diversity awareness, student success, inclusivity, strategic planning, team building, and conflict mediation.

Jordan Hamm:

His community service has included membership on the French Hospital community board, board member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship committee and lifelong learners of the central coast advisory board. Cornell and his wife, Regina, live in San Luis, Obispo County.

Ashlea Boyer:

So let’s welcome in Cornell.

Welcome Cornell. It’s so great to have you on our show and we very much appreciate your taking the time, given the time that we are in and how busy you must be. So let’s start off by having you share how the diversity coalition of San Luis, Obispo County came to be and what their mission is regarding education in our county.

Cornel Morton:

Thank you. Thank you. Well, it is a real pleasure to be with you and to participate in this dialogue right now, just before introducing the coalition. I’ll say these conversations, these dialogues are critically important right now, and I think the more, the better. And so if we continue to do this, I think we make at least a contribution that’s important. So the coalition was formed back in March of 2011. And you may recall, some of you, the cross burning that occurred in the AG community or Arroyo Grande community, and in a nutshell that African American community, that African American family was traumatized to say the least. And there are lots of stories around how that happened and where the cross came from, a local church, I believe. And the individuals by the way, were apprehended and were jailed. And so it was characterized appropriately as a hate crime.

So the folks who came together to support that family, including Michael Boyer and David Kahn, and several others who are early, as you know perhaps, early on involved, decided to stay together and to continue to meet, continue to make contributions of different sorts and so organically, public or private citizens, if you will, a allyship have developed. And so today, you hit the fast forward button to 2020, and we’re doing more with local schools, especially with middle and high schools, working with teachers through inservice training, doing a lot, by the way, to bring in community speakers, people who come to our community from near and far and share their experiences. That’s been very successful. And now we have a series planned, a four-part part series plan beginning on July next week, 29th, when we’ll do the first one around what does it mean in fact to be an ally? How can one be an ally, a good ally?

And the second, the third, the fourth component of those include law enforcement of focus on how, and in what ways law enforcement and those who work in the legal community can be allies. We’ve added a series or session on faith based considerations around allyship. And so the third component will be one devoted to hearing from faith leaders. And then lastly, the final, will be a series that we close with a wrap up to what’s been occurring over the last several weeks with the series and they’ll occur biweekly, by the way.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah, I think that’s so important, a guide book to those of us, because there’s a lot of commentary on social media about not knowing as a person from the white community or if you’re just not a person of color, you want to help, but you don’t know the best way to help. And it’s nice to have that guideline and something to pay attention to and follow along and not just let this become another blip in the road. So yeah, that’ll be great. Shannon?

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay. What are your observations on the black lives matter movement and other social justice issues affecting our community and the nation?

Cornel Morton:

Yeah. Well, where do we start? The George Floyd… It’s fair to call it murder. It was so horrific and so traumatizing and what made it so different was how visceral that experience was for those who saw it up close as it occurred. And then for all of us to see it recorded on film. And while we’ve had other instances of horrific, traumatic experiences with people in our communities across the country, not only with law enforcement, by the way, but with other circumstances, this one seemed to really take hold. And I’ll say a little bit about black lives matter, but inside the context of what happened with George Floyd… And let’s talk about that.

That happened in the midst of this pandemic. And I’ve just made a few observations about how, and in what ways our current situation, which has caused all of us to understand more deeply, I believe, our fragile humanity, a shared humanity that we’re all dealing with. Now, you layer that with watching what happened in Minnesota, and it didn’t take much for that to be a galvanizing, inspirational in some ways, call for justice and call for a human response, a response out of our own humanity, no matter our color, no matter our agenda, no matter our social class. Black lives matter, which has been for the last several years, probably at the forefront, along with some other organizations, in pushing forward an agenda that pays special attention, as it turns out, to law enforcement and the relationship that communities of color have with law enforcement, they have had what I’ll call an infrastructure for some time that made it much easier to get people out.

It wasn’t like they were some Johnny come lately, pardon the expression, group that decided to try to organize suddenly. So I think my observation are two or threefold. One, there was that very visceral, traumatic, horrific incident. There was black lives matter already at work on these issues, including by the way, Colin Kaepernick’s unwillingness to stand for the Anthem, which had nothing to do with the flag, but everything to do with what George Floyd [inaudible 00:00:09:05], as it turns out.

And then thirdly, the black lives matter movement, I believe those who are very thoughtful about it are trying to say, we understand that all lives matter, but we are also at a critical point where we need to come to terms with America’s original sin and that sin around slavery, that sin around 400 plus years of oppression, that sin around how, what Dr. Martin Luther King said, riots and protests especially, he said, are the language of the unheard, right? Dr. King said, this is the language of the unheard. When you feel you’re not being listened to, when you feel you’re not being heard, you have other means including our first amendment rights to make your voice known. So I guess in a nutshell, I see the black lives matter movement as a movement that does not, and should not send the message, we hate white people. Instead, it’s a message that says, we’ve arrived at another critical moment where black communities are rising up and saying, we’ve been unheard and we want to be heard.

Ashlea Boyer:

Right.

Shannon Bowdey:

Thank you very much.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah, so in light of this week’s events, what are your thoughts on how protests should be carried out and what they mean for the community? You touched a little bit on that, but what do you think?

Cornel Morton:

Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s very pertinent obviously. Right now, especially. Across the country, no matter how large the community, small, moderately large, large, we are a college town with 45,000 plus residents, plus a surrounding community of a hundred plus thousand people. And the protests have been able to generate broad support. I think when the protesters are protesting in a, again, peaceful way and in a way that makes clear what their agenda, what their demands are, what their concerns are. I support that. I think most of us do. We’re all wanting to avoid what we’ve seen in even our own community and some other communities. We all want to avoid situations where people stand to risk public and personal safety. We all want to avoid situations where property damage, for example, is at stake, or where people feel unsafe about leaving their home to go to a grocery store or where they feel that they can’t seem to understand what’s going on.

So two things here. One, I think the people in the street need to continue to make clear what the agenda is all about. Why are we out here? And we really need to do that because there’s so little, at times, understanding across differences about why folks do what they do, right? We’re still debating why Colin Kaepernick did what he did. And then secondly, we have to be sure that we keep the doors open, the bridge open for communication with one another. There are so many positions on all of these things that have essentially been concretized, so to speak, have been so embedded in our understanding about the world and one another, that we’ve lost a lot of capacity to talk with one another.

And I don’t mind saying that even Barack Obama, years back a couple of years back when he was asked that question, what do we do? And what’s going on? And what are you most concerned about? He said he was most concerned about the fact that we lost in our country, a sense of, over the last 20, 30, 40 years, quite frankly, a sense of community. We’ve lost a sense of community where we are more interested in civil behavior, reaching out to one another, surrounding one another with empathy, compassion. He worried about that. And the other thing is he said, we’ve lost a sense of shared facts that we now can’t seem to agree on factual information. What is it about facts that should form at least the start of a conversation? And so if you don’t, for example, believe there’s anything out there that includes systemic racism, then you’re not looking for systemic racism and you’re not likely to work at solving the problems associated with systemic racism.

One of our local, chief law enforcement officers has gotten himself into a little trouble because his observation, at least, which is problematic, is that systemic racism or racism doesn’t exist on our central coast or in San Luis, Obispo County. And I would ask anyone who has that position to define systemic racism. So if it doesn’t exist, what would it look like if it did exist? Well, I don’t think there’s systemic racism. Okay. But if it was systemic racism, what would it look like? And then have that person respond to that. And typically the response is a response that throws itself back to a definition that you have to be in a hood or you have to be burning crosses, or you be-

Ashlea Boyer:

Very overt.

Cornel Morton:

Overt. That you have to be calling people the N word. And that definition is outdated, quite frankly, as we know. And we can talk later about microaggressions and implicit bias. So, I’m optimistic at the same time, I’m an educator and I’m required to be optimistic.

Jordan Hamm:

Especially now.

Cornel Morton:

Especially now. So, yeah. Does that get at your question?

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah, definitely. Thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

So, this feathers in nicely, so we’ve discussed before. I think it’s important to bring it up again and talk about it again, to remind ourselves of microaggressions. So we see all these large scale racial injustices on our screens every day, which is a good thing. I’m not discounting that. We need to have some of this live and in living color, which I think is also why the George Floyd video was so shocking, especially as a mother hearing his words, because anytime a grown man calls out for his mama, it’s never a good thing. But the small injustices, the small things that we can do, adjust in our own lives, just being more aware every day, in the form of microaggressions is always an enlightening subject for me. So I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that.

Cornel Morton:

Yeah, I can. The, what I’ll call the instinct I think most of us have is to be fair. Most of us, I think, want to be fair. Most of us want to be perceived and actualized. If you will, as a good person, a caring person, thoughtful person. And so, well intentioned people, and we’re all in that group, we’re all well-intentioned. But as a friend of mine said, we say things, we do things and we just don’t know that we don’t know, he said. We don’t know that we don’t know. And so, when you think about microaggressions, those daily, unintended, very often, insults. They work at the subconscious. They’re manufactured by stereotypes, by being unaware of other communities, et cetera. And applying our own lens to what we think we’ve been taught about different groups. Men, women, people of color, people who worship differently.

And so we behave sometimes in ways that actually bring those stereotypes to the surface. And we might say something, do something that is quite insulting to the person who receives that message or people around and not understand that we’ve just committed a microaggression. “Oh, Cornell. You’re so articulate.” “Oh, Ashlea, you’re so bright. But I really appreciate the fact that you’re just so emotional about your work,” which is loaded. A little bit loaded.

Ashlea Boyer:

Passionate. Yes.

Cornel Morton:

Passionate. Yes. A person who looks differently, perhaps of Asian descent. “Oh, you speak great English. Where are you from?” You get the picture, don’t you?

Ashlea Boyer:

Right. And then not accepting when they say they’re from America.

Cornel Morton:

Yeah, they’re from America. Right, right, right.

Shannon Bowdey:

Exactly.

Cornel Morton:

Regina and I, my wife and I, are out at dinner on occasion. And it’s not unusual for the wait staff person, and we’ve experienced this before, to ask, “So where are you from?” “We’re from San Luis, Obispo. We live right here in San Luis, Obispo.” “Oh really? Oh, okay. Oh, you’re not from Bakersfield? You’re not from LA?”

Ashlea Boyer:

Bay area?

Cornel Morton:

Fresno, Bay area. I have at times, I won’t date any of you, but Sydney Portier and a couple of others are my favorite actors appeared in a film called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. So I always teased them. I say, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” I’m just around the corner. I’m just around the corner waiting for that dinner invitation. And that’s, by the way, what we would characterize sometimes as an environmental microaggressions. There are micro assaults there are microaggressions in terms of environment, et cetera.

So to get at your question and where we go with this, the microaggressions are like those daily little cuts, those daily little things that get under your skin and over time, as you might imagine, they mount and they become quite oppressive for all of us because all of us are capable of perpetuating microaggressions. Right? We’re all in that together. People of color, people who are, again, well-intended, people who are rich and poor. We’re all subject to, unfortunately, exhibiting microaggressions. And so what we have to be able to do, I think, is to be open to the feedback.

So someone pulls me aside and says, “Hey, Cornell?” “Yeah, what’s up?” “I’m not sure everybody appreciated you referring to the women in the room as girls.” “Well, I grew up calling them girls. I’ve got a sister and when my aunts and uncles gathered for family reunions, my uncle Ed, he always says, “Hey, what are those girls doing?” And he’s talking about 50 year old women. So, we are products of our experience, et cetera. And so I think-

Ashlea Boyer:

And sometimes I think those things were in evolution. Like, I think at one point it was acceptable in our curve of being better to say, “I don’t see color,” and effort to say, “I don’t judge you by how you look.” However, the people who have color, who are different, want people to know about those differences and embrace those and accept those and not just paint them with a homogenic brush. So that was one of the ones that you taught years ago at our rotary club, it opened my eyes because I had never thought of it that way.

Cornel Morton:

Yeah. That’s a big one. “I don’t see color.” And I always tease, as I did, by the way, a good friend, well-intentioned and she said, “Cornell, I don’t even see you as a black man. I just see you as a person. I don’t see color.” And I said, I won’t call her name, I’ll use a euphemism. I said, “Janet, I’m a black man. I’m proud to be a black man. And I’m good with you seeing me as a black man, because it’s what you do after you see color that makes the difference.” Seeing color is not the problem. But what do you do after you see the color? What do you say? How do you behave?

And then I teased her. I said, “So I didn’t want to be a passenger in your car because when we get to the red light and it turns green, and I got people laying on the horn behind us, going “What the heck is going on?” And you turn to me and you turned to me and you say, “Oh, I don’t see color.” You didn’t see the light turn green. So she got a chuckle out of that. Right? Because here’s the thing, these are serious issues, but we’ve got to be able to laugh at ourselves a little bit. It’s serious stuff. I don’t want to detract from that. Right? But we’re human beings. We’re imperfect. We’re fragile as Sting says. We have so much capacity for compassion, for empathy, for caring. And at the same time, we’re not sure what we’re doing.

There are people right now who want answers to what they ought to do with regard to what’s happening in the streets. Well intentioned people, white people, quite frankly. “I was a product of the sixties. I have grandchildren who are kids of color. Some of my best friends are. I’m a person who went to a high school that was desegregated, but I don’t know what to do, Cornell,” Right? well, guess what? A lot of us don’t. But then you have to ask yourself, if you really want to engage a serious critique, what has allowed you to arrive at the age of 40, 50, 60, 70, and not know what to do? What kind of experience and life have you led that allows you to arrive at this stage in your life and raise that question? Because I know what to do. And some of your friends of color know exactly what to do. Why is it that you don’t know what to do? If you just want to critique them a little bit, right?

And I think if people are open to that, they go, “Yeah. I think I’ve led a life of white privilege. Yeah. I think I’ve led a life that not in a voluntary way, necessarily. Not purposefully excluding myself. But my family grew up in a community where everybody looked like me. I went to a school where most people looked like me, graduated from a college where eight, nine out of 10 people look like me. I worship in a place, if I do worship, where everybody looks like me. I hang out with friends and go to the socials and the happy hours, they all look like me. I go down to the grocery store, to the bank and the people who work with me and help me, they all look like me.”

Because if you grow up in isolated circumstances, you can’t help but have stereotypes. I worked at Cal Poly for a good number of years, and God bless them, some of those students would come to us from pretty isolated communities. And so a roommate walks in, who doesn’t look like you, or a teacher takes her place at the front of the classroom. And she doesn’t look like you. Right? And you being asked to engage people doing wow week, who might not look like you. And that can be traumatizing for some folks. Now, that’s not so much the case at Cal Poly. We got to work on that, don’t we? Because we still need, obviously, and really cry out for greater diversity there. You guys know what I’m talking about.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah.

Cornel Morton:

And see, I just said, “You guys.” In some circles, “You guys,” get me into trouble. Right? But that’s the language I’m talking about. In fact, I said something recently, I’ll let you go onto your next question. A friend of mine told me, it’s like, “Cornell, you just committed a microaggression.” I said, “What?”

Ashlea Boyer:

I bet you everyone likes to try to call Cornell out, [crosstalk 00:27:41] the one that’s talking about it.

Cornel Morton:

My son, especially, my son calls me the diversity guy. And so when I say anything around him or direct any comment about any, especially around gender, he especially catches me on those he thinks. “Dad, dad, you’re the diversity guy. You’re not supposed to make mistakes.” Yeah right. Anyway.

Shannon Bowdey:

So true, what you’re saying, I know one time my son came home from elementary school and he came home and he said, “Mom, how come there’s not that much diversity in my school?” He’s like, “I want a black friend.” “I’m sorry, babe.” I never really thought of that. But it’s very true. There isn’t much diversity in our area.

Ashlea Boyer:

It is true. My mom had the same experience with me, except she went to my dad and said, “She’s growing up here and she is not going to know anything about the world. She has like one Japanese student in her entire grade and no black people. And how is she going to handle the world at large if this is what she looks at through all of her schooling? What are we going to do?”

Cornel Morton:

And this applies to all of us, but I have to admit and say again, in all candor, I think the charge for those who are typically in the majority, those who are typically in a situation where the comfort level appeals to your ethnicity, or even your gender, you have to reach beyond those comfort zones. You’ve heard this before. And you really have to self select into situations that might bring you a little bit of discomfort at first. But, boy, I tell you, the more often you do that, the less discomfort you experience. And kids are so impressionable. If mom and dad have people who look like Cornell or who look like Ashlea or whatever the situation. If mom and dad invite people over for dinner and the kid looks up, “Oh, mom and dad like black people. I’m going to like black people too.”

It’s all about exposure, isn’t it? So I have a friend who has a young daughter and the young daughter is a little “white girl.” And she bought her daughter a brown doll and a white doll. And she said, “These dolls are the same, except for their complexion.” And boy, I tell you, her daughter doesn’t go anywhere without her brown and white doll. And she’s named them. Right? She’s named them and they play together, these two dolls. Right? It’s all about how we, isn’t it? It’s about how we-

Ashlea Boyer:

Model.

Cornel Morton:

Model for our young people, especially.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah, very true.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, I didn’t grow up with diversity. So I went out and married diversity. That’s what I did. And I get a very good lesson all the time.

Cornel Morton:

All the time, I bet. Yeah, my son- [crosstalk 00:31:13]. Go ahead. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Shannon Bowdey:

No, you, tell us about your son. Go ahead.

Cornel Morton:

No, well, my son is married to a, in this country, Nicole is a white woman, in her country she’s Australian. But they have three kids and they’re a rainbow of caramel color. And somebody said, “Oh yeah, you have culturally enriched grandchildren.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take that. They’re culturally enriched.”

Ashlea Boyer:

Exactly. [crosstalk 00:31:46].

Cornel Morton:

Anyway, you were about to say, I’m sorry, I interrupted you.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yes, that’s okay. All fine. So Cordell, we’re looking forward to attending the diversity coalitions upcoming event on July 29th, part one of a four part series, fostering understanding in our community, part one, black lives matter, how to be an ally. Can you tell us about the panel and the moderator?

Cornel Morton:

Sure. The moderator is Fanshen coxed. Fanshen, yeah, she’s been with us before, you recall. And she’s coming out of the LA area. She has a background in performing arts and theater, and she’s worked with some top stars around issues of social justice and diversity. Gina Whittaker is on our panel. Gina Whittaker is an activist in our community. I think she’s down South of San Luis, Obispo, AG or Grover. And she happens to have two kids of color, as I understand. And she’s had some very interesting experiences as a white woman with two kids of color and dealing with all that that goes with perceptions and stereotypes.

Michael Boyer is on our panel for that session. And you guys know a little bit about him. I don’t know if you know, Erica Baltodano. Erica Baltodano is a local attorney. She has a deep background in environmental justice, as it turns out, but as a lawyer, as an attorney, she has been a public defender and she’s worked closely with farm worker communities and others as an ally. And so she’s on the panel as well. And then Courtney Hale. Courtney Hale leads Race Matters. And Courtney is an African American woman who has been very much engaged and involved. So those four individuals and Fanshen constitute the panel of sorts.

Ashlea Boyer:

Sounds amazing.

Cornel Morton:

We’re looking forward to about a 90 minute experience.

Shannon Bowdey:

The good thing about it is we can all watch it from the comfort of their own home.

Cornel Morton:

Yeah. How about that?

Shannon Bowdey:

Anybody, anywhere, [crosstalk 00:33:56].

Ashlea Boyer:

The amazing part about that is that the turnout is going to be record breaking for the groups because it’s already well over 250, I think. So, and that to me just makes it more open to all. And so hopefully affecting more people and helping them be better.

Cornel Morton:

Right. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:34:21] And it goes back to the comment I made about allies, and what does it mean to be an ally?

Jordan Hamm:

Okay, great. Well, thank you so much, Cornell. This has been fantastic. We’ve loved getting to know you more and how you support our community. We just really appreciate your time.

Cornel Morton:

Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to be with you and let’s continue, as John Lewis said, let’s make a little good trouble.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah, I like that.

Ashlea Boyer:

Sounds good.

Cornel Morton:

And get some work done. Thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

I agree.

This is Ashlea Boyer.

Jordan Hamm:

Jordan Hamm.

Shannon Bowdey:

And Shannon Bowdey.

All: With the Pismo Beach homes team.

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